Value, learning disability and theatre

lets take it to the bridge

I Love You Baby is being created for a crossover audience made up of all kinds of human beings from the age of 11 up.

The objective is for an elderly man, with the beginnings of dementia, to be able to sit next to his twenty five year old gay niece, his deaf wife beside him, his mixed raced friends in the seats in front of him, his gaming fanatic teenage grand-daughter and her older autistic brother two seats along, sat in front of a middle aged woman, a straight couple in their twenties and a large group of learning disabled adults with an interest in performance and for everyone of all ages and contingencies to have a really good time in the theatre, being challenged, engaged and entertained.

The question being interrogated through this writing,  research and development project is whether it is possible to attract this crossover and general audience into middle scale theatres, to watch a play purely on the basis of it being delivered in an innovative and entertaining way, in spite of a central role being delivered by an actor with a learning disability.

Theatre work featuring actors with learning (and other) disabilities, has been considered to be most appealing to other people with disabilities.  Audience development models suggest audiences seek their own stories out, theatre being considered a place where we look for role models and direct representations of ourselves- women for example will go in groups to see Tim Firths’ CALENDAR GIRLS because it dramatises their own life experiences at various ages.

Audiences, so the theory goes, look to see themselves reflected back to themselves.


Increasingly the old idea of two separate theatre worlds- a disability theatre and all the other kinds of theatre is beginning to come into view again and it’s this recent breach which is being sought to be glued back together through this process for I Love You Baby.

There is a perception that a learning disabled actor equals a learning disabled audience, and a particular form of theatre ,and that this particular form of theatre is not for general audiences.

I Love You Baby doesn’t fall into the learning disability theatre category.

It’s a new mainstream comedy for a general audience which happens to have a learning disabled character in it.

So let’s take it to the bridge- and crossover.

Toby Meredith/Developing the character of Clarence in I Love You Baby
Toby Meredith/Developing the character of Clarence in I Love You Baby

Toby Meredith is an actor of value, to me, to his colleagues, to process participants, to audiences, to the theatre ecology and ultimately to society.

He’s exciting. He can act with his back, a talent shared with the best stage actors.

Facing upstage he can tell the story through his physique, his character’s emotional state oozing through every atom, communicating directly to an audience through his bones.  A big man with short cropped hair, a rich Yorkshire baritone voice with a pleasing huskiness and shoulders you could rest two large hods of bricks on he draws eyes and commands in a theatre space like few actors can. An acute and sensitive interpreter of narrative nuances he can play and time a pause to perfection and hold a house in the palm of his hand. He moves like liquid mercury. He’s masculine and vulnerable at the same time. He’s the epitome of watchable. He inspires the best writing.  Other actors want to work with him, he’s spontaneous and has a glint in his eye.

He’s exceptional and I’m thrilled that he’s developing the role of Clarence with me through this research and development process.

The fact that Toby Meredith is all of these rare things and also an actor with Downs’ syndrome amplifies his value.

His accomplishments and skill, in what is a highly technical medium,  demonstrate what can be achieved with equality of opportunity, dismissal of prejudice and an understanding that it’s through collaboration with teams of talented, disparate and vastly different highly skilled people working at their best- true integration– that the best of all humanity can be explored and celebrated.

The pursuit at the heart of the collaborative art form that is theatre.


Talent simply is.

The technical ability to work in theatre very much isn’t.

It has to be learned.

In order to be heard beyond row 1, move without looking odd in a synthetic environment (watch any untrained actor on stage or camera and you’ll see the difference), control a level of adrenalin equivalent to that pre impact in a car crash and at the same time make an audience believe you’re someone else in a different place entirely and take them on a convincing journey takes hours of class and rehearsal.

In spite of all the triumphs of recent years on significant stages up and down the country the value of Toby Meredith and professional actors like him is still called into question, increasingly so when funding pressures are immense, and as austerity measures kick in.

Considering value and learning disabled actors necessarily reflects the role and status of learning disabled people in society,  current attitudinal shifts are in danger of pushing learning disabled actors off integrated main stages and back into the wings.

Hypothermia/National tour of a piece of integrated theatre
Hypothermia/National tour of a piece of integrated theatre

Last week the Guardians’ Lyn Gardner wrote in favour of arts funding for the disability arts sector and the comments posted underneath her article were sobering.  A vein of commentary around entitlement and perceived indulgence within this sector,  dissed-by association- the progress of the past two decades in terms of representation in mainstream theatre, film and TV.

It therefore becomes more important than ever in theatre to emphasise the value of high quality integrated work.

The value that learning disabled actors bring to contemporary film, TV and theatre needs to be celebrated, not filed away in a drawer labelled disabled, an area of work which can too easily be categorised and ignorantly dismissed.

Both learning-disabled actors, and theatre as an art form, are specific entities.

Learning disability isn’t the same as physical disability and theatre isn’t the same as a broader arts sector.

Theatre is made by large teams of artistic, craft-based, technical and administrative specialists coming together, the better the team the better the output.

Some disability focused theatre companies employ people for the creative, administrative and management roles, regardless of disability or any other definers. Some companies focus on disability leadership and actively seek to promote the skills and talents of disabled people to all roles, providing support and assistance where needed to enable people to fulfil potential.  The same battle for recognition and equality is being waged by both kinds of companies, using different weapons.

The Arts Council Unlimited programme has offered commissions to some brilliant disabled artists in a positively aimed attempt at developing talents within a sector; it would be a tragedy if the effect of focusing funding in this one area has a detrimental effect on what have been very active steps into an integrated theatre featuring learning disabled actors in the past few years.

Tourettes Hero/An Unlimited commission

Many successful and highly regarded companies and organisations such as Creative Minds, the Lawnmowers, Carousel and Mind The Gap work with a  disability-led focus and ethos.  Much of the work generated and promoted is developed and made solely by disabled people. Company members have responsibility for the creation and formation of material, the role of writer/actor/director is not as lateral as it is within mainstream contexts.  Ownership over all aspects of making of the work lies with the artist. Many of these companies badge themselves as multi-disciplinary arts organisations.

In other more specifically theatre focused companies, collaborative creative roles are divided along standard lines so that a writer writes the script, a director directs and actors have responsibility for the highly skilled job of delivering characters and performances.

It’s in this latter arena where companies like Dark Horse and mainstream theatre producers, playwrights and many venues have been able to make huge strides  in recent years, specifically in framing a new integrated theatre, featuring casts of learning disabled and non learning disabled actors delivering high quality drama.

Working in this way, with teams of established and accomplished theatre professionals,  means value has to be placed on the training and development of all gifted people in the craft of acting and many drama schools and specialist companies have been doing this highly successfully.

This isn’t participatory, community or overtly political/social work it’s about equality of opportunity within the acting profession to feed, change and energise mainstream media.

Liam Bairstow
Liam Bairstow

Recently Liam Bairstow, a Mind The Gap trained actor,  has been cast as a regular in Coronation Street, leading young persons playwright Mike Kenny has written commissions for plays featuring learning-disabled actors, Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange Manchester and Theresa Heskins at the New Vic Stoke have produced plays featuring learning-disabled actors.  Sarah Brigham at Derby Theatre is an active advocate for diversity and I Love You Baby project partners the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the Lowry have made, and continue to make, a commitment to value by investing in high quality work made by exceptional integrated production teams– featuring actors with learning disabilities.

Commercial producers are also forward thinking,  Coronation Street is storming ahead in it’s casting of a regular character with a learning disability and TV producer Paul Abbott (Shameless/No Offence) has made notable work featuring learning disabled actors and Marks and Spencer’s broke new ground by using a boy with Downs Syndrome in TV advertising.  The Royal Shakespeare Company has held open castings for disabled actors and major theatres are now very aware of the value of considering learning disabled actors when casting shows.

A principal value of all work in the subsidised theatre sector lies in it’s vital underpinning of the work we watch in the non subsidised sector, which would struggle to thrive or even exist without state funded theatre.

publicy funded

Current Kings of popular theatre and film, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch benefited from privilege and private education but also benefited from early work and actor development at state funded theatres such as the Donmar Warehouse, Royal Court and National Theatre.

Without public subsidy for theatre most of the actors we tax payers enjoy watching on TV wouldn’t have lasted more than a year out of drama school.

The writers, directors and various roles associated with TV and film production will in the main have had some very necessary development and learning courtesy of the state funded system. Without the nursery slopes of Youth Theatres, regional theatres and various bursary schemes the BAFTA winners of tomorrow will have nowhere to learn their crafts.

Commercial producers have begun to pick up talented and trained learning disabled actors from the subsidised sector, secure in the risks being taken due to leaps in skill level developed through training.

Funding for integrated theatre develops the skills of learning disabled actors and the ability to work at all levels within the theatre industry, the more visible learning disabled actors are the better for everyone and the more representative popular culture becomes.


I spoke to a company member on The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time and asked why a non disabled actor had been cast in the leading role.  She answered that the role was very physical, the set perilous to navigate and that the non learning disabled actor who played the role had suffered injuries and experienced difficulties which meant, she felt, that it would be an insurmountable challenge for an actor with a learning disability.

Chewing the rationale over I was left thinking that all theatre-makers may ultimately consider practicalities and constraints from the beginnings of a process so that the idea of casting learning disabled actors is both positive and desire-able.

By continuing to make opportunities for learning disabled actors in high profile work, theatre and society moves forward and talent is intrinsically valued for what it is, not impeded by the package it comes in.

tobys back


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